He is living in the moment and how! Gagan Dev Riar is inundated with congratulatory calls, interview requests and his Instagram following is growing by the minute. He is letting the euphoria around his superlative performance as scamster Abdul Karim Telgi in ‘Scam 2003’ sink in.
None of the newfound recognition is exasperating. Rather, as he receives a laudatory message from actor Arvind Swamy of ‘Bombay’ fame, he holds up his hands, fingers crossed. A star is born. Come to think of it, Gagan is no greenhorn and has been alive and kicking on Mumbai’s theatre circuit for long. However, right now, how he nailed Telgi’s role, how Hansal Mehta spotted him in Mira Nair’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ and how he didn’t make the right impression in the first audition is fast becoming part of Gaganesque fables. His weight gain and loss too is being recorded with awe. Indeed, the physical transformation — he gained 20 kg for the part — is important to him; as is getting the sur and laya right, for which he travelled all the way to Karnataka’s Khanapur to imbibe the right lahja (accent), the local dialect and how Dakhini can be mixed with Hindi. But as he explains, “We never wanted the complete dialect as that would have cost us pan-India audiences.”
A Punjabi acing the part of a man from Karnataka, Gagan does owe it to his innings in theatre, particularly to stalwart Satyadev Dubey. He says, “I was fortunate to be working at the time he was alive. He taught me how to keep Hindi, my core language, at point zero axis on the graph from where one could move into any direction.” Theatre also taught him to keep it simple. Of course, for ‘Scam 2003’, working with showrunner Hansal Mehta and director Tushar Hiranandani, both makers with different approaches (one realistic and the other stylised), was helpful too. The swag — reminiscent of Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘Deewar’ days — that you see in his essaying of Telgi possibly came from Hiranandani. Among the many shades of Telgi, he found striking the balance between his vulnerability and his crime most difficult to achieve. “But Hansal sir, who monitored everything, helped me crack it. He was like the guiding Bible,” he adds.
And how does he see Telgi: as a hero or antihero? He says, “A bit of both; actually, a flawed human being, like most of us. We all are guilty of transgressions, jumping a red light, bribing an official to expedite our passport. Only the scale of his crime was gigantic. We are not simplifying his misdeeds, only showing the other side of the crime, the network that facilitates it. We have to be dramatic while showing the crime to drive home why crime is bad.”
Though he was asked by Mehta not to judge Telgi and play him like any other human being, does he think we are less harsh in judging financial crimes? He nods, “Indeed. His was a complex crime because he never stole money. But yes, compared to losing Rs 5 lakh, losing a dear one to a heinous crime like murder is devastating.” As for the series being a cautionary tale, apart from ‘crime doesn’t pay’, is there any other lesson in this underdog-turned-criminal story? He thinks hard, and as an afterthought, adds, “Perhaps, it is a lesson in how not to plan life while you are riding high on success.” Thus, while offers come knocking on his doors, he has hit the pause button. “I am not in a hurry.”
That seems true of the makers of the series, too, who have dropped only five episodes. Good strategy or bad optics? He answers, “It could swing both ways. The hype around it might be difficult to replicate in November when the rest of the episodes stream. At the same time, judging by the response, viewers could watch it all over again from episode one and add to the viewership.” To his burgeoning tribe of fans, he does promise an exciting and satisfying finale.
Born in Delhi and raised in Pathankot, Gagan has not been so much in touch with his Punjabi roots ever since the family moved to Mumbai in 1993. The curiosity about his middle name, Dev, is revealed thus: “I added it after my father Devender Singh passed away in 2010.” Not just as a tribute but also to honour his father’s desire to be an actor. Conversing in Punjabi is one way of connecting with his home state that he visits when work beckons. Indeed, he would not mind being part of Punjabi cinema or, for that matter, the South Indian industry, or even Hollywood.
The world is his oyster as he has been part of Mira Nair’s Broadway style musical ‘Monsoon Wedding’. Whether Nair brings anything womanly to the table, he laughs, “She is bindaas, a livewire and can dominate you more than any male director. If she doesn’t like anything, she can brush you aside brusquely.” On a serious note, working with the likes of Nair and Mehta, masters of their craft, has been more than rewarding. He shares, “Both are such generous makers. When Nair signed me for ‘A Suitable Boy’ after watching my play, she would go around telling others, ‘Gagan is my heartthrob’, and today, Hansal sir is taking immense pride in introducing my talent to the world.”
Gagan agrees that OTT is fast becoming an actor’s medium, especially “for those like me who do not have conventional good looks”. ‘An actor prepares’ is certainly an axiom that works for him, only, he qualifies: “Each actor’s preparation is different. Some slip into the character just by wearing a costume. For the others, a prop could do the trick.” He reads the script several times and marries it with physicality and stitches mannerisms together. “I practice several times so that I can own the character,” he says.
Having shed all the weight he put on for the role, he is back to being Gagan. However, while he was prepping for the role, he did not like his bloated reflection in the mirror and did nurse doubts. “What if the shoot doesn’t happen, what if a big star replaces me?” Today, basking in the limelight, he understands stardom is transitory. “I might be a star today but tomorrow, I can be zero.” Gagan would like to position himself in a way that he makes the right decisions. However, he would not say if Telgi is his best so far. “I don’t think in terms of best/worst. You live every character differently. I tried my best. Now I urge viewers to watch my work in ‘Sonchiriya’ and ‘A Suitable Boy’.”
As for the future, Gagan would like to take one step at a time. Instead of signing on the dotted line, he would first like to come down from cloud nine on which he is floating right now.
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